Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Some thoughts from Douglas Adams...
As I did this week's readings, I couldn't help but think of Douglas Adams. The thought-provoking quote above describes the main protagonist, Arthur Dent, rather perfectly. Arthur, despite mind-numbingly explosive space travel, and profound experiences in the depths of space, remains rather unhappy with the universe. He has "moved somewhere smaller" in his own mind and convinced himself that he can only be happy when not engaging with the wildness of the space-time continuum.
This, I think, is what Spinoza, Sagan, and de Botton are proposing we get away from. We've got to stop minimizing our mind-space and instead extend our internal horizons. Everything that is before us (the world, the cosmos) and all the collective potential we have within us intersects to reveal the awesome spectacle that is our existence.
Religion exerts incredible amounts of energy into doing this by inviting its participants to contemplate the nature of God and His creation. In certain sects of Christian worship there are two different kinds of meditation: kataphatic and apophatic. Kataphatic explores the known nature of God: goodness, omnipotence, etc. The apophatic meditation concentrates on not just the unknown but the unknowable: vastness, relationship to all life, etc. Buddhism promotes a clearing of the mind philosophy so that one can engage wholly in the universe. Nirvana itself is that act of becoming one with it. It is an act of flinging oneself beyond limitations.
Yet it is often thought that those who believe only in the physical world cannot engage in this same manner. But it is by the very same physical boundaries that such engagement is not only possible but necessary. The stars, our planet, life as we know it gives us hundreds of opportunities to acknowledge the transcendent. It is not our faith traditions or lack thereof that hinder our realization of the spectacular; it is our own minds. It is the Arthur Dents inside of ourselves that demand that we make our world smaller and smaller.
But this connection, as de Botton asserts, is necessary so that we are able to view ourselves within a larger scope and comprehend our own insignificance (hopefully more successfully than Zaphod Beeblebrox). Then our struggles--our trials and tribulations if you will--can deflate. We can redirect our curiosity toward the "unsettling big place" in which we survive.
The "quiet life," the one composed of tea and bills and bulldozers in our front yards, that we sacrifice this spiritual intensity for is bound to disappoint. It will cause us grief and heartache. Religion, though, offers an escape from the pains of the world through prayer, through its connection to the sublime. This is what our current knowledge and technology offer us. We are able, if for just a moment, to look beyond ourselves, our quiet life, our happy ignorance, and reckon the absurdity of ourselves with the universe.